Wednesday, September 10, 2003

PART TWO OF "MY PHANTOM PAIN" (continued from yesterday):

I pick up Neil up in my well-meaning but weather beaten Ford Taurus. Neil jumps in the car sporting his standard tan Khakis and blue polo shirt. It’s not that he is intentionally a conservative dresser, he's just a lawyer and that's what they wear. As I pull off, Neil ejects my mix tape and puts on the news, which in my car is considered a criminal offense and a personal affront. But in these times, the rules have to change. They just have to.
We are anticipating a great deal of traffic but still believe that we can find the route with the least amount of congestion. While listening to 1010 WINS, we both become suddenly aware of what we are trying to avoid. We are going to pass Ground Zero. The inevitable confrontation. In our self-centeredness, we have intentionally suppressed the only way to revel in our meat-therapy, was to drive by the disaster scene. I suddenly experience a tumultuous conflict of emotions. A rush of anticipation to finally see the site and restraint for being so insensitive. Hesitation and impatience. I am a battleground of colliding emotions but at least, I am feeling again.

Usually, Neil and I find it difficult to remain silent. If not a shared appreciation of cinema, the fodder of our banter is comic books or music. There used to be much out there to discuss. But suddenly there is little conversation in the car. I’m certain he is thinking the same thing I am. Images of body parts strewn about – legs, arms, maybe heads…do you understand this? Unidentifiable toes - cars backed up for miles with nowhere to go, a thick tower of smoke threatening to turn in any direction. All this for a measly deli sandwich.

After multiple attempts at awkward conversation, Neil and I drive past the famous skyline. And as the news had reported to me, they aren’t there. It is true. They did not make this up. In risk of coming across as too dramatic, I ask Neil if I can pull over the car for a moment. I must pull over. He concedes. I get out of the car and stare in awe. I immediately think of Richie.


Richie is my father’s best friend and an uncle of sorts to me. While he may not realize it, the way he’s conducted his life has inspired many. While in college, Richie had his right leg mangled in a horrible car accident. There was nothing "they" could do, so it was mercilessly amputated. In its stead, Richie was given a prosthetic, a wooden leg, like a modern day pirate. He still married, had children and grandchildren and even started his own business. Without a leg.

When I was younger, we had Richie and his family stay with us for a weekend. My father had asked me to visit the guestroom to see if Richie needed anything. In my youthful rudeness and brash, I burst through the door to the sight of Richie sitting there on his bed rubbing his stump sans prosthetic, in intense pain. I innocently asked Richie what was wrong. He responded that he was experiencing a horrible case of phantom pain. Acutely aware of my perplexed facial expression, he proceeded to explain what phantom pain was. He told me that while his leg wasn’t physically there, his mind was still convinced that is was. And every so often, he would feel pain in that area. This blew my mind. How could the human mind be so simply and easily deceived? I never could understand this psychological phenomenon. Even as I grew older and mentally capable of more difficult concepts, I’ve always had trouble fathoming how you could feel the pain of something not there.

Well, now I am staring at something that isn’t there and I begin to cry. The closure I so desperately need comes to me in saltwater emissions from my already weary eyes. At this exact moment, I finally understand Richie’s concept of phantom pain. All these years, whenever I saw Richie, which was often, I would wander off for hours pondering this incredible aspect of human nature. Feeling pain for something that wasn’t even there. I wondered what if felt like – discomfort that wasn’t coming from a fleshy source. I wondered if he looked down during his phantom pain attacks to see if it was all a dream and his leg was indeed really still attached to his pelvic bone. I couldn’t help but appreciate the brilliance and cunning of the mind, that it would try to convince you to the contrary of what your eyes saw. Can you believe the nerve? In a grief-stricken moment, all the questions I had were all answered. I no longer wondered how Richie felt. Finally I too felt an extreme, intense pain over something that wasn’t there.


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